A Sign of the Times

From the Associated Press, last Friday:

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney refused to even acknowledge the government’s direct role in killing al-Awlaki. He repeatedly ducked questions about the extent of Obama’s authority and said only that al-Awlaki had been an operational leader for al-Qaida.

“Is there going to be any evidence presented?” Carney was asked.

“You know, I don’t have anything for you on that,” he responded.

Could there be a more perfect illustration of the age in which we live?

Lupe Fiasco and Liberal Denial

The remarks discussed here were made in June, but I came across them only recently and found them worth writing about. It is rare for anyone featured in the mainstream media to acknowledge the fact that Obama is responsible for murdering innocent people, much less draw any damning moral conclusions from it. It is also rare for anyone to offer a radical critique of voting. As a result, rapper Lupe Fiasco’s appearance on CBS’ “What’s Trending” would have been notable in and of itself. Just as notable, however, is the reaction from liberals like Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, hosts of the Internet talk show The Young Turks. Their inability to understand, much less refute, Fiasco’s truth-telling offers crucial insights into the nature of liberal denial.

When asked by “What’s Trending” host Shira Lazar about his criticism of Obama in the song “Words I Never Said,” Fiasco gave this response, which can be viewed in The Young Turks segment posted above:

FIASCO: In my fight against terrorism, to me, the biggest terrorist is Obama and the United States of America, you know. So for me, it’s like I’m trying to fight the terrorism that’s actually causing the other forms of terrorism. The root causes of terrorism is the stuff that the U.S. government allows to happen, you know, and the foreign policies that we have in place in different countries that inspire people to become terrorists, you know. And it’s easy for us, because it’s really just some oil, which we can really get on our own.

LAZAR: So who are you looking to vote for in the 2012 presidential race?

FIASCO: No, I don’t vote.

LAZAR: Oh, you don’t vote? Really?

FIASCO: No, I don’t vote. I don’t get involved in the political process –

LAZAR: But why?

FIASCO: Because it’s meaningless, to be honest.

LAZAR: Really?

FIASCO: First of all, I’m a real big believer in that if I vouch for someone, I’m going to stand behind everything that they do. . . . If I’m going to say I stand behind this person and write on a piece of paper that says, ‘Hey, I stand for this person,’ then I have to take responsibility for everything that he does, ’cause that’s just how I am as a human being, right? So politicians aren’t going to do that, because I don’t want you to bomb some village in the middle of nowhere.

LAZAR: So what if no one voted? What would happen, though?

FIASCO: Who knows? Let’s try it out, see what happens.

The full interview can be viewed here. Needless to say, TYT hosts Uygur and Kasparian are not amused by Fiasco’s anti-voting message. In fact, they address his statements on voting first, perhaps sensing that this critique poses a greater systemic threat than calling an individual president a terrorist. They reliably trot out the establishment line during their commentary:

UYGUR: Not voting is a disastrous idea, and then the worst candidate wins, and then what have you accomplished? . . . Look, I’ve got bad news for you. Politics is always the lesser of two evils. . . . You choose the guy who is not as bad as the other guy, okay? Sad day for you, that’s how our system works, unfortunately, and we fight to make it better. And you don’t fight to make it better by not voting, okay, and not participating.


First notice how Uygur conflates electoral politics with politics as a whole. Lazar, in the Fiasco interview, makes the same mistake. She is clearly shocked that an overtly political artist like Fiasco not only does not vote, but refuses to vote as a matter of principle. Neither she nor Uygur is able to conceive of a political world in which voting is only one of many political actions, and might even be undesirable, given the other options. They have no room in their worldview for civil disobedience, general strikes, revolution, or the myriad other methods that have been used historically to change the existing political order. For them, electoral politics is politics. There is no other kind – at least none worth thinking about, and certainly not worth pursuing.

It is also striking that Uygur acknowledges the system he defends is irrevocably evil. He lectures that “politics is always the lesser of two evils,” then reassures us that this is not the result of some systemic flaw, but – as I have written before – that it is in fact “how our system works.” In other words: the system is designed to allow only evil choices. Every vote cast is a vote for evil. One might logically conclude from this that the system itself is evil. Uygur does not draw wider conclusions from his Freudian slip, claiming that “we fight to make [the system] better.” But he has already admitted that his chosen method for doing so – voting – is always guaranteed to result in the triumph of evil. Because Fiasco refuses to participate in an electoral system that will make him an accomplice to evil, he is ridiculed as naïve.

But Uygur is not done:

Now, of course, the main comment is him calling Obama a terrorist. Everybody is going to flip out over that. So, do I think Obama is the biggest terrorist? Of course not. Do I understand the point he is trying to make? Yes. . . . I get his logic, I disagree with the ultimate conclusion, but he’s saying, ‘Look, we’re causing certain events throughout the world and we need to examine our own actions.’ I think it’s an interesting and thoughtful point, whether you agree or disagree.

Except that’s not the point Fiasco was trying to make. He made the point he was trying to make, and it bears little resemblance to Uygur’s watered-down interpretation. Fiasco didn’t say the U.S. is causing “certain events.” He said the U.S. is committing terrorism, with all the moral censure that term carries for a post-9/11 American audience. His meaning is self-evident. It also happens to be true. If Obama is not a terrorist, then the word “terrorist” has no meaning. Fiasco reiterated this point, at greater length, in a later interview with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons:

[Obama] never piloted a drone from a hundred miles away and dropped a bomb on a wedding or a birthday party. But at the same time too he should receive the same amount of credit for those actions of the people that are under him and the organizations that he heads. He should receive the same credit and the same title that Osama bin Laden gets. What’s the difference between somebody walking a bomb in strapped to their chest into a wedding full of innocent people or a bomb coming from a stealth fighter two miles up and coming into the roof into a wedding full of innocent people? What’s the difference? At the end of the day you’re killing innocent people.

Uygur is unable to face this truth. He cannot even bring himself to accept that Fiasco meant what he said. Notice how he dismissed out of hand the idea that Obama could be a terrorist, much less the “biggest” terrorist (“Of course not”). Such statements are so unfathomable to Uygur’s core belief system – so antithetical to the way he sees the world – that he automatically assumed Fiasco was employing hyperbole. He could not process it. Hence the “I understand the point he is trying to make” nonsense, when in reality Fiasco had already made his point, loud and clear.

Kasparian thinks the same way, and makes the same mistake:

KASPARIAN: Yeah, I think the way he portrayed his ideology was all wrong, like calling him a terrorist will automatically make people dismiss what you’re trying to say. But, you know, when I think about what he’s really trying to say, I can see what you mean where you say you understand him. . . . [Briefly discusses U.S. support for Israel and how the War on Drugs has caused narco-terrorism in Mexico.] So I understand what he’s saying as well, but calling Obama a terrorist I think automatically makes people dismiss you because that’s a little ridiculous.

UYGUR: Right, it’s over the top.

Never mind Kasparian’s particularly insane implication that one should refrain from calling Obama a terrorist, even if he is a terrorist, because it will “make people dismiss what you’re trying to say.” Rather than accepting that Fiasco meant exactly what he said and going from there, Kasparian takes it upon herself to explain what he “really” means. Like her co-host, she simply cannot imagine holding Obama to the same moral standard as bona fide, officially-designated terrorists like bin Laden. Doing so is “a little ridiculous,” after all, no doubt for the same reason that Uygur feels “it’s over the top.” Because no decent person would ever dream of thinking this way, Fiasco does not – and more to the point, cannot – really hold this opinion.

Neither TYT host can acknowledge that Fiasco meant what he said, because this would require them to address what he said. And these people can’t do that. Even when Kasparian admits that, in some roundabout way, the U.S. may be responsible for some suffering somewhere in the world, she does not bring up the obvious examples, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, where atrocities are routinely committed by American troops with American weapons on American orders. Instead she brings up American aid to Israel, where the U.S. is at least one step removed from the killing, and narco-terrorism in Mexico, where the connection is even murkier. Kasparian must psychologically distance the U.S. from atrocities to keep intact her worldview intact.

To admit that the U.S. government commits terrorism would mean assigning moral blame. It would mean acknowledging that Obama and his ilk are responsible for the slaughter of innocent people – that they have committed unforgivable evil. There is, of course, no place for this in the liberal worldview voiced by Uygur and Kasparian, which holds the American system and its leaders to be fundamentally good. Likewise, such a worldview has no place for those who, like Fiasco, recognize an evil system for what it is and assign moral blame accordingly.

Uygur’s comments here paint his July departure from MSNBC in a rather different light. While management no doubt viewed him as hostile to the establishment, his defense of Obama and the electoral system in this clip indicate that their concerns were exaggerated, to say the least.


The System is Working Perfectly

REUTERS/Eric Thayer

It is tempting, when one surveys the current state of this country, to conclude that the system is broken – that something, somewhere along the line has gone terribly, terribly wrong. How else to account for the endless wars, the lingering recession, the ever-widening rich-poor gap? As unsettling as this conclusion may be, however, the reality is far more disturbing. The system is not broken. In fact, it is working just as intended.

This point is crucial to any understanding of political events today. Without it, much of what takes place seems to defy explanation. Indeed, when measured against stated goals, many U.S. actions appear, by any rational standard, insane: waging a War on Terror guaranteed to provoke more terror, for example, or appointing the very architects of the financial collapse to then “fix” the catastrophe. From such examples one can draw two possible conclusions: that U.S. policymakers are epically incapable of rational thought; or that their stated goals (eradicating terrorism, fixing the economy) are not their actual goals.

American policymakers are not irrational. Their actions are not accidental, but calculated. If the effects are horrifying it is because they are the result of a system that is itself horrifying, not the unfortunate byproducts of a well-intentioned system that is simply functioning improperly. Simone de Beauvoir recognized this when she linked the use of torture by French forces during the Algerian War to the unjust political and economic order the war served to protect. As she put it: “There are no ‘abuses’ or ‘excesses’ here, only an all-pervasive system.”

In my June 30 post, I wrote that many of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history, far from being isolated incidents of temporary national insanity, were actually integral to the functioning of the American state (as distinct from its government – the difference can be found here):

The truth is that economic exploitation is not the exception but the rule, tracing a bloody path through U.S. history from slavery and the subjugation of Native Americans to the current oil wars in the Middle East. That is what the American state does and has always done. That is its purpose. That is its function.

While that passage focused specifically on the U.S., the description applies more generally to all political states. One can see this exploitative dynamic at work most brazenly in Europe, where austerity measures are forcing ordinary people to pay for the economic destruction wrought by a small clique of legally untouchable elites. This sort of class warfare serves as the cornerstone of the state, as Albert Jay Nock wrote in his 1935 book Our Enemy, the State:

The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner. On the negative side, it has been proved beyond peradventure that no primitive State could possibly have had any other origins. Moreover, the sole invariable characteristic of the State is the economic exploitation of one class by another. In this sense, every State known to history is a class-State. Oppenheimer defines the State, in respect of its origin, as an institution “forced on a defeated group by a conquering group, with a view only to systematizing the domination of the conquered by the conquerors, and safeguarding itself against insurrection from within and attack from without. This domination had no other final purpose than the economic exploitation of the conquered group by the victorious group.”

Understanding the fundamental nature of the state helps to explain policies that are otherwise inexplicable. Over the last decade, the War on Terror has not made Americans safer, and in many ways has made the world vastly more dangerous for them. But it has not been a failure. The war gave the U.S. carte blanche in its effort to consolidate power in the oil-rich Middle East and central Asia. Reliable puppet governments have been installed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, the U.S. has built a sprawling network of military bases in both countries. These will allow remarkable access to the region for years to come. In these respects – and these are the only ones for which the war has been fought – the War on Terror has been a resounding success.

Similarly, while the appointment of Wall Street insiders to lead the economic recovery has done little for ordinary Americans, it has provided numerous benefits to the American ruling class. The decision immediately signaled to bank executives that they would not be held accountable for their financial crimes. To date, not a single executive has been jailed in connection with the economic meltdown, and there is little reason to believe that this will change anytime soon.

The selection of insiders has also guaranteed that Wall Street will carry on with as few profit-killing reforms as possible. The well-researched documentary Inside Job provides support for this point. It too, however, mistakenly assumes that the meltdown itself was a failure of the system. On the contrary, it was yet another wild success – CEOs lined their pockets even as they bankrupted their companies and received massive government assistance. Those intended to profit from the debacle ultimately did profit. Under a system maintained by the rich for their own benefit, that is the sole criterion necessary to judge its success or failure.

No Qualms

From The Guardian, Sunday:

For the past three years, Noor Behram has hurried to the site of drone strikes in his native Waziristan. His purpose: to photograph and document the impact of missiles controlled by a joystick thousands of miles away, on US air force bases in Nevada and elsewhere. . . .

Noor Behram says his painstaking work has uncovered an important – and unreported – truth about the US drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal region: that far more civilians are being injured or dying than the Americans and Pakistanis admit. . . .

“For every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant,” he said. “I don’t go to count how many Taliban are killed. I go to count how many children, women, innocent people, are killed.” . . .

Even when the drones hit the right compound, the force of the blast is such that neighbours’ houses, often made of baked mud, are also demolished, crushing those inside, said Noor Behram. One of the photographs shows a tangle of debris he said were the remains of five houses blitzed together.

The photographs make for difficult viewing and leave no doubt about the destructive power of the Hellfire missiles unleashed: a boy with the top of his head missing, a severed hand, flattened houses, the parents of children killed in a strike.

From a Newsweek article published in May, lauding Obama’s escalation of drone strikes:

Asked whether the president has struggled with the moral implications of remote-controlled death, a senior intelligence official tells NEWSWEEK, “Not at all. He has no qualms.”

Feel free to draw your own conclusions.


Demystifying U.S. Foreign Policy

REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Lisa Anderson’s feature article in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs, “Demystifying the Arab Spring,” offers few revelations for anyone who has been following the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The bulk of the piece is devoted to a fairly unremarkable, mainstream analysis of the differences between the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. That said, several statements made by Anderson are worth exploring in detail, as they shed light on one of the more central problems of our time: the inability of political commentators to recognize U.S. foreign policy for what it is.

The first sign of trouble arrives even before the article begins in earnest. Anderson is unlikely to have written the three-sentence summary heading her essay, but it nonetheless sets the tone for the rest of the piece:

Why have the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya followed such different paths? Because of the countries’ vastly different cultures and histories, writes the president of the American University in Cairo. Washington must come to grips with these variations if it hopes to shape the outcomes constructively.

Note the assumption underlying such a statement: that the U.S. government has a divine right to “shape the outcomes” of other peoples’ revolutions – indeed, that it is morally justified in doing so. The addition of the word “constructively” is no doubt meant to be reassuring. It is nothing of the sort. The critical question is, constructively for whom? Anderson makes clear that she is talking about U.S. interests, not those of Egyptians or Tunisians or Libyans, in the essay proper:

For the United States to fulfill its goals in the region, it will need to understand these distinctions and distance itself from the idea that the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan uprisings constitute a cohesive Arab revolt.

This begs the question: what are the goals of the United States in the region? Surely one should consider the nature and moral legitimacy of these goals before making policy recommendations. Anderson doesn’t elaborate on what these goals are, perhaps considering them self-evident. Nor does she delve into whether they are compatible with minimal standards of human decency.

Luckily, the U.S. government has been more forthright on the subject. The leaked 1992 draft Defense Planning Guidance, the blueprint for the Pentagon’s post-Cold War military strategy, outlines in a single sentence American priorities in the region:

In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil.

That sentence was rewritten, along with a number of other passages, after the original draft was leaked to the New York Times. But the strategy remains the same. Oil access is the end goal of U.S. policy in the Middle East, the single overarching objective by which the success or failure of all subsequent policies are measured – not democracy or freedom or human rights. The policymakers know this, and they frankly acknowledge it when the cameras are off and their memos are intended for internal consumption only, as was the draft Defense Planning Guidance.

Knowledge of this fact renders the vast majority of the “national discourse” utterly meaningless. This is because the debate inevitably centers on how the U.S. government should act in a given situation when the interests of the U.S. government dictate how it will act. Analysts like Anderson, who are unwilling or unable to recognize the fundamental nature of the American state, are destined to prescribe policies that not only will never be adopted, but could never be adopted by the U.S. government because they conflict so radically with basic state interests.

This leads to policy prescriptions that are laughable on their face. For example, Anderson argues later in her article that the Obama Administration should use its influence to champion the Tunisian labor movement and restrain the power of the Egyptian military. Such analysis disregards the fact that a strong labor movement in Tunisia – or anywhere else, for that matter – is detrimental to the corporate interests that form the core of U.S. policy and flies in the face of more than a century of U.S. repression of organized labor (the assault on Iraqi trade unions since 2003 is just one of the more recent examples). Likewise, the notion that Washington would purposely hobble the Egyptian military – a reactionary force it has trained and funded for decades, and which serves as its closest ally in that country – is unthinkable. It is not a matter of improbability but impossibility.

By advocating policies that would loosen the American military and economic stranglehold on the Middle East, Anderson effectively calls for the U.S. government to act against its own interests – to deliberately take sides against itself. This is something that will not and, more to the point, cannot happen, which is why she fails to articulate those “goals in the region” that her policies would ostensibly fulfill. She then engages in a bit of logical sleight-of-hand by ignoring the very existence of those imperial interests that her policies would threaten. Confronted with the revelations from the draft Defense Planning Guidance, her argument implodes.

This sort of sophistry is dangerous because it pretends that supporting economic elites and repressing labor movements are not integral parts of the American system. It advances the fiction that the U.S. government does not have interests beyond those it publicly claims, and as a result presents a fantastically skewed picture of the world, one that cannot ultimately be reconciled with reality. The truth is that economic exploitation is not the exception but the rule, tracing a bloody path through U.S. history from slavery and the subjugation of Native Americans to the current oil wars in the Middle East. That is what the American state does and has always done. That is its purpose. That is its function. And so long as analysts like Anderson persist in their delusions, its operation will continue unimpeded.